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Sexual Assault Complaints Increased By 65 Percent Last Year

The crowd looks silently on as speakers share stories at a rally against sexual assault in 2015.
The crowd looks silently on as speakers share stories at a rally against sexual assault in 2015. By Sidni M. Frederick
By Claire E. Parker, Crimson Staff Writer

The number of formal complaints of sexual harassment Harvard affiliates filed with the University increased by 65 percent during the 2016-2017 academic year, according to an annual report on sexual harassment prevention and response released Tuesday.

According to the Office of Dispute Resolution and Title IX Office report, 43 individuals across the University filed formal complaints of sexual or gender-based harassment during 2016-2017, an increase from 26 the year before. Around 250 individuals made informal disclosures of such harassment to the Title IX office last year.

“Increases in disclosures and complaints are indications that members of our community are seeking the assistance they need. If recent events in the wider world have taught us anything, it is that marginalization and silence perpetuate the status quo,” University President Drew G. Faust wrote in an email to Harvard affiliates Tuesday about the report.

The report is the University’s second on sexual assault prevention and response and the first under a new administrative structure. Harvard’s Title IX administration split into two offices in April in order to separate administrators who provide training and resources from those who investigate incidents of sexual assault.

Now, Nicole Merhill leads the former group at the helm of the Title IX Office while William D. McCants directs investigations through the Office of Dispute Resolution. Previously overseen by the same administrator, the two offices do not now share information about cases unless an individual decides to file a formal complaint about sexual harassment with ODR, Merhill said.

“By separating the two offices, we can confidently reiterate to our community members that affording each individual agency over the path they wish to take when accessing resources is truly central to the functioning of the Title IX Office,” Merhill wrote in the report.

With this separation—and increased communication to Harvard affiliates about the resources in each office—has come an increase in disclosures to the 55 Title IX coordinators across Harvard’s schools and the number of formal complaints filed with ODR. According to the report, 138 individuals at the College informally disclosed incidents of sexual or gender-based harassment to Title IX coordinators last year, up from 121 the year before. Across the University’s graduate and professional schools, 128 individuals at graduate and professional schools disclosed incidents.

Merhill said these numbers are likely the result of heightened awareness of University resources and a culture that encourages reporting sexual harassment, rather than an increase in the incidence of sexual harassment.

“Some of it is increased trainings—whether it is online or in person—some of it is increased awareness of the overall issue in society,” she said. “I think it’s awareness of the resources available, as opposed to an increase in harassment in our community.”

After students and a University-wide Title IX oversight committee called for the offices to publicly disclose more information about sexual harassment complaints and investigations, McCants said the report included more detail about the specific kinds of allegations, outcomes, and profiles of those filing formal complaints.

A majority of complainants over the past three years were students, according to the report. Students also made up the majority of respondents in 2014-2015 and 2016-2017, with staff comprising the highest percentage in 2015-2016.

In almost all cases, the complainants had previously interacted with the alleged perpetrator in either a work context, friendship, or romantic relationship. Allegations included “sexual assault with penetration,” “sexual and gender-based harassment: verbal, written, graphic,” and “quid pro quo harassment.”

Of the 44 complaints that entered the full investigation stage from 2014 to 2017, University investigators found policy violations in 43 percent of cases, according to the report. The length of time investigations take decreased from 4.4 months in 2015-2016 to 3.8 months last year—a reduction McCants attributed in part to ODR branching off from the Title IX Office and hiring another fellow.

The split has also enabled ODR to investigate violations of University policy beyond sexual assault or gender-based discrimination, McCants said—including instances of other types of violence and discrimination in access to Harvard facilities. With the consent of administrators at the appropriate schools, ODR investigated five such cases during the 2016-2017 academic year.

Since the restructuring, the Title IX Office to expand its educational offerings, Merhill wrote in the report. Office representatives and Title IX coordinators across Harvard’s schools held over 200 in-person trainings during the 2016-2017 year.

The report also highlights new online training modules at several schools, and increased participation rates across the University. Participation in employee online training increased 74 percent from the previous year, and the report notes a 67 percent increase in student online training from 2016-2017 to the start of this academic year.

The report comes amid ambiguity over the future of Title IX enforcement at the federal level. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos removed Obama-era guidance on Title IX, a move that some fear could allow institutions to relax their sexual harassment policies. In her letter prefacing the report, Merhill reaffirmed Harvard’s commitment to maintaining its current policy and procedures.

“It is imperative that as University Title IX Officer I reiterate not only the University’s commitment to working together to proactively address concerns of sexual and gender-based discrimination, but also my unwavering commitment to ensuring that Harvard University continues to serve as a leader in community outreach, education, and prevention efforts,” Merhill wrote in the report.

The efforts follow a set of recommendations a University-wide task force on sexual assault released in March 2016, and a 2015 sexual assault climate survey in which 31 percent of senior undergraduate women respondents said they had experienced “nonconsensual sexual contact.

—Staff writer Claire E. Parker can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ClaireParkerDC.

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